There are over 15,000 troops, more than 250 military observers and around 50 civilian police serving in the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) from some 37 countries. It is currently the largest peacekeeping operation in the world.
"The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations [DPKO] is committed to working with our partners to support HIV/AIDS awareness among our peacekeeping forces," said Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary-General in the Department. "It is crucial that peacekeepers have the knowledge to protect themselves and the communities they serve."
The first step of the project will be to determine what peacekeepers know about AIDS and sexually transmitted infections and the role they can play in community outreach. They will be trained in HIV/AIDS prevention, gender awareness and women's rights. Training materials for peacekeepers will be developed to help them educate their peers and host communities.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji, said UNAMSIL was proud to be the first United Nations peacekeeping operation where this joint programme for peacekeepers to receive updated training in HIV prevention and gender awareness is being launched. "Peacekeepers are uniquely positioned to educate communities and prevent HIV infection," he said. "Armed with knowledge and skills, they can fight the war against HIV/AIDS and reverse the tide of infection."
The programme will be coordinated by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. UNFPA representative in Sierra Leone, Mamadou Diallo, said: "UNAMSIL peacekeepers have done a great deal to uphold peace and security in Sierra Leone. Now they will do even more as they continue the fight against HIV/AIDS. We can beat the HIV/AIDS epidemic if we spread information and knowledge faster than the virus."
The officials were speaking during the launch ceremony in Freetown. The audience included national government officials, representatives of the Sierra Leonean army and police, United Nations military and civilian personnel, and representatives of international and local non-governmental organizations.
"The threat of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is looming ever closer to Sierra Leone," said Alan Doss, United Nations Resident Coordinator. "This project is one of many collaborative initiatives, which are being implemented by the United Nations family and its partners to deal with this threat both within the United Nations system and beyond."
Peacekeepers have a high level of interaction with communities and can educate and inform people about HIV/AIDS prevention. "This programme represents a breakthrough because it acknowledges the critical role peacekeepers can play in preventing HIV infection and protecting women's rights," said Florence Butegwa, Regional Programme Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
Other collaborating organizations include UNAMSIL, DPKO, UNIFEM, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the International Centre for Migration and Health (ICMH). The Executive Director of ICMH said in a message from Geneva that he hoped the initiative would "provide new insights into how peacekeeping forces can be helped to protect themselves and prevent HIV/AIDS in the larger civilian community".
In Sierra Leone and globally, the fight against HIV/AIDS is a priority for the United Nations. The risk of HIV infection increases during times of conflict as social services and networks break down.
The decade-long war in Sierra Leone seriously disrupted all sectors of the country and society. No part of the country was spared. Over 60,000 people were killed, thousands more were purposely disabled, and rape and sexual exploitation were widespread. About two thirds of the population was forced to leave their homes. Many fled to neighbouring countries, while others remained as internally displaced persons with few resources at their disposal. Today, thousands of girls who lost their families and were abused have been forced to turn to commercial sex work to survive.
AIDS has already killed more Africans than all the continent's recent conflicts combined. The new joint United Nations effort in Sierra Leone is designed to support national efforts to help the recovering country avoid a full-blown AIDS epidemic.
UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance. Since it became operational in 1969, it has provided nearly $6 billion to developing countries to meet reproductive health needs and support development effort.